Block Avenue Takes Big Data Approach to Neighborhood Ratings

9/17/12Follow @xconomy

In theory, Tony Longo is one of the last people who should be making bad decisions about which block to live on. He founded an online brokerage firm called CondoDomain (recently acquired by Better Homes Realty), and street location was the final factor when he decided where to live in New York City.

But when Longo relocated to Boston last October with his then-fiancée, he picked an apartment in a corner of the South End that’s charming during the day—with its dog park and stroller-pushing new moms—and, shall we say, dicey at night.

“I’m so utterly embarrassed to say we moved to a location where we totally didn’t know what it was really like. And we still live there,” he says.

But that error helped jump-start a little idea to create a website for rating neighborhoods, one block at a time. The site, Block Avenue, officially launches this Thursday. Longo has raised $200,000 in funding to seed the Cambridge, MA-based company, from angels like former State Street Global Advisors chief operating officer Peter Leahy; Stephen Kliegerman, president of the prestigious New York City real estate firm Halstead Property Development; and PJ Solomon and Steve King, early Facebook employees who are advising Block Avenue on its market positioning.

“Where we live at night, when the sun goes down, is a different, different place. We got surprised,” says Longo, who started his career as an engineer at Sun Microsystems. “I’m building a resource so nobody else has to go through and have that problem.”
The startup has collected data on factors like schools, crime, restaurants and transportation—including bus, train, and ferry routes, bike sharing availability, Zipcar proximity, and nearby parking garages—for blocks across the United States. It’s been operating in a private alpha mode for the past few months to collect user reviews in Boston, New York, and DC, the cities it will be focusing on at first.

The website crawls the data points and reviews to give each block a letter grade, ranging from A through F, which Longo sees as much more telling than the five-star system employed by sites like Yelp. If the objective data points give a block a bad rating, consumers who live there can rate it otherwise. “Consumer input is weighted so much more heavily than the data point input,” Longo says

Block Avenue has designed its interface to allow the consumer to interact with the information most relevant to them, by turning off the layers of data they’re not concerned about. They can also hone in on specific elements—say, a local coffee shop—and rate whether it makes the neighborhood better or worse.

Block Avenue requires users to log in via Facebook Connect, in an effort to block spam and the slew of fake or biased reviews—aimed at bumping up scores of restaurants and such—that sometimes plague Yelp. Users can choose to leave reviews under an anonymous alias for privacy’s sake. When they do keep their Facebook identities public, users can choose to search neighborhood data based on what friends have said, thereby creating a social data layer for the site, Longo says.

And since I’ve just said the word data maybe 10 times in a few paragraphs, I asked Longo if his startup was a big data play.

“Absolutely, without a question,” he says. “We didn’t know it until we got it on our servers. I know it’s a fad and a trend, and it never popped into our mind.”

“But with anything over 20 million data points, you’re a big data player,” he adds.

As far as business models go, Longo says the startup plans to work with the real estate market. But he also sees potential in advertising for local businesses—“ it’s getting harder and harder for them to market to people,” he says. Block Avenue could also partner with travel sites, providing information to consumers who want to really get a sense of what a city is like, rather than just hitting all the typical tourist hot spots, Longo says.

Longo was also enthusiastic about the attention tech giants have been paying to review sites. (We first met shortly after Google announced its acquisition of the Frommer’s travel guide business.)

“It’s obviously exciting to see the big players want to come into this space,” he says. “They realize how important it is.”

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